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Report: Palm tree-based biofuels may speed up global warming

Governments around the world have been pushing policies to lessen dependence on fossil fuels to curb global warming. Yet new research shows that making biofuels from palm tree oil could actually accelerate the effects of global warming.

A team of international scientists examined deforestation of Malaysian peat swamps to make the land suitable for planting palm oil trees which is releasing carbon that was trapped for thousands of years. The carbon becomes penetrated by microbes and release carbon dioxide is released, which is believed to be a major cause of global warming.

“We have known for some time that in South East Asia oil palm plantations were a major threat to biodiversity… and that the drainage could release huge amounts of carbon dioxide during the fires seen there in recent years,” said Chris Freeman, one of the researchers and an environmental scientist at the University of Bangor.

Crop-based biofuels been criticized by some environmentalists due to the high amount of emissions they release and because they take away valuable agricultural land and contribute to deforestation.

Reuters reports palm tree oil is is cheaper than rapeseed oil and soybean oil for biodiesel, which makes it an attractive commodity. More than 80 percent of palm oil is grown in Indonesia and Malaysia and that palm oil producers clear out an area the size of Greece to grow palm oil trees. Currently there are 28,000 square kilometers of industrial plantations in Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo with even more planned.

Leaked data from the European Union showed that palm oil biodiesel is more polluting than conventional gasoline when environmental degradation is added into the equation.

“But this discovery of a ‘hidden’ new source of problems in the waters draining these peatlands is a reminder that these fragile ecosystems really are in need of conservation,” Freeman added. “Our results are yet another reminder that when we disturb intact peat swamps and convert them to industrial biofuel plantations, we risk adding to the very problem that we are trying to solve.”

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